Jørgen Nielsen: Could Muslim schools have halted bombers?

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The Independent Online

It is a symptom of the general incomprehension felt by most in the face of the London bombings that virtually every explanation imaginable has been seized upon in an attempt to make sense of something that seems completely senseless. Often the explanations offered appear to say much about their authors, whilst doing little to bring us closer to that elusive comprehension.

For a start, we can discount the politicians' imaginings that "they hate our values and our democracy". But are we getting closer when it is suggested that Muslims' lack of economic success and integration can be blamed, especially in the case of Muslims of south Asian origins?

Does social and cultural isolation make it easier for individuals to follow a path which leads them over the edge in this way? Spurred on, of course, by feelings of anger at the international politics which constantly seem to target fellow Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Chechnya - just to mention the issues with the highest profile. Is it hard-line imams preaching jihad in certain mosques that increases the momentum?

Just as generals are reputed always to be fighting the last war, I wonder whether some of the current search for explanation might not be subject to a somewhat similar process.

So far as Britain is concerned, the last battle was the riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley in the summer of 2001. The finger of the various subsequent reports was pointed squarely at communities growing and living in isolation from each other, including schools whose population reflected their local communities and therefore confirmed the isolation for the next generation.

Given, in particular, the analyses of the 2001 riots, many in educational circles have found the government's insistence on encouraging more faith schools a bit perverse. The London bombings will focus this questioning especially on Muslim schools, public or private.

There is a debate here, one that should be revived at regular intervals. But before we get into it we just need to remind ourselves that the four young men who on 7 July apparently brought terror in the name of Islam to London, were not the products of separate Muslim schools. What linked them would seem to be the kinds of youth clubs and community centres that years of local and national government policy have sought to encourage in strategies of social inclusion and encouraging diversity.

So what about those separate Muslim schools - a few in the public sector, many more run privately? The argument for equity must lead to the conclusion that so long as we have faith schools it would be unjust to single out Islam as the one faith which should not be allowed them. Ban Muslim schools, and all faith schools should be banned.

No, the argument has rather to focus on what kind of Muslim schools. Existing ones are mostly small, in the private sector, and under-funded. A few have been taken into the public sector since the new Labour government changed policy towards Muslim schools soon after coming to power in 1997. These schools are larger and better funded, many performing well in the league tables.

But it is not really size or funding that matters in this context. It is ethos, approaches to teaching and the curriculum, and attitudes to the wider society which are key. Some of these schools have an open and flexible atmosphere, an ethos which acknowledges wider society and in which children are given the space to have different ways of being Muslim.

Others take a more inward and strict approach, one which their detractors occasionally label "wahhabi" or even "fundamentalist". Certain parts of the curriculum are avoided or given a particular ideological slant, wider society is seen as a threat. There are not many of this kind, but they exist in both the private and the public sectors. And, somehow, they seem to escape the inspectors' attention or are given the kid glove treatment.

But let us be clear, the bombers of 7/7 did not come from either of these types of school. In fact, it could be argued that if they had been pupils in a Muslim school they would not so easily have been led astray by the manipulative minders who would appear to have sent them to their deaths. Was it precisely their ignorance of Islam which made them easy prey, an ignorance which would have been dispelled had they gone to a Muslim school?

The writer is Professor of Islamic Studies at the department of theology and religion, University of Birmingham